Two weeks ago, the Coca-Cola Company launched a new ad campaign that has garnered lots of national media attention, including a story on local news here in Albuquerque (where Media Literacy Project calls home). The advertisement in the middle of the controversy, titled “Coming Together,” was created for Coke by Atlanta-based BrightHouse, and Washington, DC-housed Citizen2.
In this commercial, we are shown a wide range of faces, representing various ages, races, and genders. We see children, parents, physicians, and even business professionals. We infer that the people shown are middle class, given the homes, schools, cars, and clothing that appear on screen. The audience is made to feel warm and fuzzy feelings upon seeing a smiling parent dropping their child off at school, or kissing their forehead in the kitchen after a presumably long day at work. We are also shown a number of beverages that are produced by the Coca Cola Company, such as Coke, Diet Coke, Sprite, Vitamin Water, Fanta, and more. Many of these beverages are immediately recognizable by their iconic logos and packaging.
Graphics appear on the screen to emphasize what the voiceover is telling us, that Coca Cola has not only increased the number of low and no-calorie beverages that they produce, but they have also decreased calories consumed per serving by 22%, and decreased the number of calories consumed by school-aged children in school by 90%. Those are some pretty incredible numbers! You would think that with such amazing reductions, we’d be hearing about this all over the place.
Well, you’d be wrong. I wasn’t able to find any studies that could back these claims up during my research for this blog, so I guess we just have to take Coke’s word for it.
Luckily, we don’t have to take Coke’s word on the science of no and low-calorie soft drinks. Diet Coke, as well as a number of other no and low-calorie beverages in the Coca Cola Company portfolio, are sweetened with an artificial sweetener called aspartame. Aspartame, whose trade name is NutraSweet and is found in a number of other artificial sweetener blends, has been linked to a number of health issues, including migraines and chronic headaches, neurological issues, erectile dysfunction, and even obesity, the very epidemic Coca Cola claims to be battling in this campaign. Recent research suggests that consuming foods and beverages that are sweetened with aspartame may alter the body’s metabolic response, making aspartame consumers more likely to gain weight.
And let’s not forget the 2010 class action lawsuit against the Coca Cola Company. The suit, brought against the company by the Center for Science and Public Interest, claims that the company’s brand, Vitaminwater, falsely bills itself as a healthy mix of vitamins and water. One bottle of Vitaminwater has around 125 calories and 33 grams of sugar, meaning you’d be hard pressed to find any doctor promoting this beverage as part of a healthy and balanced diet. But, with endorsements from world-class athletes such as LeBron James and Kobe Bryant, it’s easy to see how consumers might be confused about the truth surrounding low and no-calorie beverages.
Beyond the deceptive Vitaminwater debacle, this particular Coca Cola advertisement makes the claim that “all calories count.” While that may be true to some degree, it’s also true that some calories count more than others. Nutritionally dense foods, ones that are rich in vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, have calories that count towards our bodies’ health and well-being. There is no proven nutritional value in sodas and other artificially sweetened beverages, whose consumption is increasingly linked to the obesity epidemic in the United States. The consequences associated with the consumption of chemicals and empty calories are definitely part of the story that is being left out by Coca Cola.
Also untold is the story of structural limitations to what healthy choices people may actually have in their daily lives. A number of individuals in the United States live in areas where healthy eating options are not readily available. These places are referred to as “food deserts,” or areas that lack access to fresh fruits, vegetables, grains, and other foods that build a well-balanced diet. Access can be thought of as not only physical access, but also the financial ability to pay for more expensive fresh foods, as well as education about nutrition and what constitutes healthy eating. Food deserts are frequently located in socially segregated neighborhoods, and disproportionately impact single mothers, children, people of color, and low-income families. By focusing on individual choices in this advertisement, Coca Cola is distracting consumers from the reality of structural oppression. And that doesn’t feel like we’re “Coming Together” at all.
Ricky Hill worked for two years at Media Literacy Project as an AmeriCorps VISTA volunteer. Ricky is now a third year doctoral student in the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of New Mexico. Their research interests center on assessing and addressing LGBTQI health disparities, and communication for social change.
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